What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the common term for a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and grains derived from them or having different names like triticale, durum, kamut, semolina, and spelt. Grains are so common in our diet that gluten is second only to sugar as our most commonly consumed ingredient.
What Is Celiac Disease?
The digestive system is the set of organs that digest food and absorb the important nutrients the body needs to stay healthy and grow. One important part of the digestive system is the small intestine, which is lined with millions of microscopic, finger-like projections called villi. Nutrients are absorbed into the body through the villi.
People who have celiac disease have a disorder that makes their bodies react to gluten. When they eat gluten, an immune system reaction to the protein gradually damages the villi in the small intestine. When the villi are damaged, the body is unable to absorb the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs to stay healthy. People with celiac disease are therefore at risk of malnutrition and can develop anemia or osteoporosis.
The body’s inability to absorb nutrients can also mean that young people with untreated celiac disease may not grow properly and may have weight loss and fatigue. In addition, people who have celiac disease may be prone to developing other diseases, such as thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes, and gastrointestinal cancer.
What Causes It?
Experts don’t know exactly why people get celiac disease, which is also called gluten intolerance, celiac sprue, nontropical sprue, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy.
The disease has some genetic background, which means that it may run in families. Just like eye or hair color, people inherit the genes that make them more likely to get celiac disease from their parents and grandparents. If an immediate family member (such as a parent or a sibling) has celiac disease, there’s about a 5% to 10% chance that you could have it, too. Celiac disease affects people of all heritages and backgrounds.
It is estimated that 1 in 133 people in the United States has the condition, although many don’t know that they do.
Signs and Symptoms
It’s important to diagnose celiac disease early before it causes damage to the intestine. But because it’s easy to confuse the symptoms with other intestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome or lactose intolerance, teens with celiac disease may not know they have it.
Some common symptoms of celiac disease are diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating, and weight loss. Someone with the disease may feel tired and could be irritable or depressed. Some have skin rashes and mouth sores. Teens with undiagnosed celiac disease may go through puberty late.
Someone might not show any symptoms until going through an emotionally or physically stressful event, such as going away to college, illness, or an injury or pregnancy.
How Is It Treated?
Once celiac disease is diagnosed, a doctor will help treat it. Although there is no cure, celiac disease can be managed successfully by following a gluten-free diet. People with celiac disease need to follow this diet for life. Because gluten can be found in everything from breakfast cereals to prepared luncheon meals, they need to be very aware of what’s in the foods they eat.
If you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, a doctor or dietitian who specializes in celiac disease can help you develop an eating plan that works with your lifestyle.
Luckily, the small intestine can heal. Although this process may take up to a year, many people start to feel better after just a few days on a gluten-free diet. But feeling better doesn’t mean that people with celiac disease can resume eating foods containing gluten. Because the genes that cause the disease are present in the body and the immune system continues to react to gluten, the symptoms and problems will return if someone with celiac disease starts eating gluten again.
Taking Care of Yourself
The good news about celiac disease is that most of the delicious and yummy foods, including birthday cake and pizza, can be prepared without gluten. So if you have celiac disease, you can still find ways to enjoy most of your favorite foods — you just need to do some research and be aware of what’s in the foods you eat.
Here are four things you should do if you have celiac disease:
- Learn to read labels to find out if a food contains gluten.
- Learn which foods are gluten free.
- Find alternatives to wheat, barley, and rye flours and other gluten-containing grain ingredients for your recipes.
- Find a support group where you and other people with the condition can share up-to-date information.
While the law requires the labeling of wheat-free products, be aware that “wheat free” doesn’t necessarily mean “gluten free,” as wheat-free products may have barley and rye (gluten-containing grains) in them.
Finding Gluten-Free Foods and Ingredients
Most grocery stores carry few gluten-free products these days. You may be able to find gluten-free bread, cereal, baking mixes, cookies, and crackers at your local market. For a wider selection, make a trip to a health food store. Be aware that lots of natural markets and health-food stores keep foods in bulk bins. It’s not a good idea to use even gluten-free products from these bins because the risk of cross contamination is very high.
Many specialty shops online also sell a range of gluten-free products, such as bread, pizza crusts, and pastas. Many regular and online shops even sell gluten-free flour blends that you can use to make your own pancakes and waffles, pizza dough, cookies, and brownies.
Eating a gluten-free diet is a lifelong commitment. But if you have celiac disease, you are not alone. Lots of support groups, cookbooks, and websites are dedicated to living a gluten-free life. To make sure you always have the most current and accurate information, consider joining one of the national celiac organizations. There are even gluten-free summer camps and special support groups just for kids and teens.
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